Comedy can help people make sense of everyday developments, and it can help in releasing tensions during tough times and suffering.
“I have seen this movie before”. On the 18th of October, Egyptian comedian and public figure, Bassem Youssef, used these words on Facebook to imply that people will turn against him once more, even if they cheer him on in the present. Bassem recently became one of the most watched guests on the Piers Morgan show, when his satire and political commentary on the Gaza-Israel Conflict went viral.
I remember waiting eagerly for the uploads of his talk show during the aftermath of the Arab Spring in Egypt – it was called El-Bernameg – and as it translates to “the program”, it really was *the* program in the Middle East and North Africa for those interested in political satire. A show with a live audience, very akin to shows hosted by formidable comedians such as Jon Stewart. Bassem is no longer in Egypt, having moved to the United States after his show was cancelled. Bassem was victim to censorship and ostracization in a changing socio-political landscape.
I deliberately will not go into the details that led to his censorship, but the story goes as most stories of censorship go: he picked his battles, and a large section of society did not appreciate taking the hit.
But I started this article with Bassem’s overt prediction that his resurgence as a popular figure is temporary, and indeed it may very well be. I fear for comedians because their profession is misunderstood. Bassem has repeatedly said, as have most comedians, that he has no political ambitions, nor is he a political player. Comedians like Bassem, as with many comedians that face calls for censorship in the West, are not out to appease everyone: they are out to make fun of our ideas, conceptions, and norms. This will offend, but offence is a part and parcel of the profession. Do not exercise your power to censor someone because one of their jokes does not sit right with you at the current time. The fact of the matter is that comedians talk on an endless range of topics, and eventually, they may rub on you.
In fact, they may touch on the very points you have felt so hard to express before and agree with wholeheartedly that you forget their previous offences. Bassem is the case in point. His censorship may have led to him quitting the profession altogether, and that would have deprived many of his commentary lately.
Bassem has been exercising his freedom of expression through comedy, even if it’s not always in purely democratic contexts. The importance of comedy lies in allowing us to go where we cannot in regular conversation and in allowing us to have difficult discussions without having them, thereby being an instrument of democracy and progress. Indeed, the failure to do so is a failure to sustain the lifeblood of democracy which is civil discussion, disagreement, and exploration.
Perhaps Bassem was wrong to predict the same movie being played in his life again one day. I hope he was. Perhaps his appearance on Piers’ show was a sign of progress and acceptance of satire in the Arab world. However, let’s not forget that in some parts of the world, this acceptance has been a given. It has been around for a long time, and it seems like it may just be at risk of fading away. I hope I am wrong about that.